By Andrew Verrijdt
I recently read an article in an important research journal that left me quite perturbed. The article was about how hypnosis can help us channel the wisdom of our ancestors that exists beyond time and space.
The staggering implications of this were too much for me, and I promptly went to bed. But in the morning the article was still there, which troubled me even more (part of me had hoped I’d imagined the whole thing).
In the interests of full disclosure I must admit that I once submitted a piece to this particular journal and was rejected. In defence of the journal I must point out that they mention, at length, that they do not regard the article in question as legitimate research but included it because some people take such ideas very seriously, and thus we should take the time to talk about them.
I understand this point of view but respectfully disagree with it for the simple reason that such articles are bullshit, and that makes them dangerous.
I hope no one is offended by my use of the technical term “bullshit” to describe this particular flavour of nonsense, but no more appropriate word exists. In 1986 the philosopher Harry Frankfurt published a detailed explanation of the term. He said bullshit is different from lie, because before one can lie one must first know the truth.
The bullshit artist is under no such restrictions. They do not care about being truthful, or defending a lie: they are only interested in being convincing. To this end they will use both truth and falsehood in whatever combination suits their purpose, which is why they can be even more dangerous than a liar. Lies are easily disproved. Bullshit needs to first be pruned.
Such it is in the article that first so troubled me. It combines truthful statements from physics (like the idea that matter and energy are in some ways the same thing) with statements that are, ahem, “questionable” (for example the claim that hypnosis can access “past lives”). The resulting sludge is then garnished with the word “quantum” and served to us with a smile as if it made sense.
Well, it doesn’t.
In order to understand the danger of bowing to the “quantum” buzzword it might help to cast our gaze back to the end of the 19th century. At that point electricity was all the rage. It was a mysterious, new thing that seemed to have miraculous powers and quacks were quick to capitalise on it. They sold devices that claimed to cure insomnia, constipation, erectile dysfunction and many other ailments. And when sceptics asked how they worked the quacks responded that it was all due to the wonders of electricity. After all: every organ in the body runs on electricity, so adding more electricity could only be good, right?
As in the article above truth was combined with nonsense to create bullshit, and people lapped it up.
A similar thing happens today with homeopathy. Homeopathy has been repeatedly shown to be no better (or worse) than placebos. But people who don’t know this, or don’t understand how convincing the placebo effect can be, continue to purchase homeopathic “cures” for similar ailments as those mentioned above. Dr Ben Goldacre has devoted his life to debunking this and other forms of medical hokum; there is so much of it about that someone has to.
The problem of bullshit extends far beyond the risk of leaving people sleepy, irregular and flaccid. Earlier this year a professor of alternative medicine at the University of Exeter complained that research into chiropractics was deliberately ignoring negative side effects of the method, including paralysis and even death.
He pointed out that every treatment will get some reports of negative side-effects, if only due to coincidence. So when you read a study on chiropractics (or homeopathy, or anything else) that lists zero negative side-effects then you can be reasonably certain that the researchers are operating unethically.
Or, from my perspective, that they are engaging in bullshit.
The problem only gets larger as the camera pulls back. For almost ten years global warming has been a scientific fact that is not under any significant assault. The evidence supporting it, already bulletproof, continues to grow while the sceptics attacking it only grow more hysterical. They include conspiracy theorists like the late Michael Crichton (who claimed that a cabal of hippies was trying to stifle progress), scientifically illiterate bloggers and bought-and-paid-for industry mouthpieces. None of these groups is worth taking seriously on scientific matters.
But an alarming percentage of the population still believe that global warming is controversial, and they believe this because we have given bullshit a place in our public discussions around these issues. By putting genuine science alongside bullshit we demean the former and embolden the latter.
There is no greater, and no more troubling, case of this than Thabo Mbeki’s approach to HIV/Aids. Mbeki fell under the sway of the Aids denialist movement who hold that ARVs are poisonous, that HIV doesn’t cause Aids and that even though Aids isn’t real they can still cure it, with vitamin pills and a side salad.
The denialists blend truth and lie together into a bullshit smoothie that is hard to separate out. It’s true that ARVs are terrifyingly toxic but they are the only way to prevent HIV from turning into Aids, a disease that kills within a few months. It is likewise true that higher than normal doses of vitamins is recommended for people who are HIV positive but that doesn’t mean that vitamins alone will save you. Magic Johnson has been HIV positive for 20 years and his continued health has been due to a scientifically formulated regimen of medications, not beetroot juice and the African potato.
It is impossible to know how many of our fellow South Africans have been killed by Aids denialism. What we can know is that the number is too high. By providing public space to bullshit we threaten the public’s access to knowledge. Should people be allowed to espouse nonsensical ideas? Of course they should!
That’s what Twitter is for.
But they should not be given space in scientific journals, public policy discussion, advertising billboards or other realms of power. It is admirable that we all try so hard to give both sides of every story.
But that doesn’t work when one of those sides is composed entirely of bullshit.
Andrew Verrijdt is an educational psychologist.